[image-1]Don’t try to Google Vassiliki Falkehag. You won’t find much.
Sure, there are a few Facebook hits, a Youtube video with 600 something views, and mentions of her upcoming exhibit courtesy of the CP online calendar. But there’s no official website, no artsy Instagram feed with shots of Falkehag’s studio, no livestream of the artist hanging the glass bottles she’s collected for her newest installation. She’s off the grid.
When we meet, Falkehag explains her lack of a web imprint: “If we take what I’ve done since I returned to Charleston (seven years ago) as a context, prior to that I worked on 28 projects that you could not find anything about online,” she says.
Instead, Falkehag pulls out a photo album, the kind you might have used a decade or two ago to collect family photos, with two plastic inserts per page. Falkehag shows me the projects she’s worked on over the past three decades: there she is, much younger, with the same wiry hair springing in all directions, overseeing an install; there’s a photo of a plant bed, reminiscent of a grave, with soil packed into the confines of a human bed frame; and there’s the 1995 art show in Atlanta, The Living Room, with a focus on chestnut seedlings, a comment on the American chestnut blight, and how humans have influenced biodiversity.
Falkehag whips through the photos, through decades and across the world, from galleries in the American South to forests in Sweden. “And here I pulled up floorboards and planted seeds … and here you can see how I work with light and nature, see how the color changed morning, and midday, and night.”
Falkehag was born in Athens, Greece in 1945. For the past 32 years the artist has bopped between Sweden, Greece, and Charleston. And she’s managed to find a common thread no matter where she is in the world.
“It’s industry versus nature,” says Falkehag, “I don’t like to use ‘versus’ very often, but I need people to understand, no sugar coating. I live in Mt. Pleasant. And I’ve been going back and forth to Mt. Pleasant for years and how it has changed is very obvious. It’s a personal issue I have — really the community’s aesthetic beauty is becoming uniform.”
In her upcoming Redux exhibit, Changing Index, Falkehag unabashedly uses the term versus, juxtaposing dirty plastic and glass bottles with water samples and soil and spartina grass. In her previous exhibits, Falkehag was exploring, utilizing nature and nurturing it so that plants would grow and create new shapes, new pieces of art. In Changing Index, Falkehag is confronting.
“Growing up, I was so critical of Greece,” says Falkehag. “I would see all the trash on the Greek beaches. But here … recently on a clean up with Charleston Waterkeepers we found a toilet. A toilet!”
Falkehag wants us to examine what we’re doing to the place we call home, to our salt marshes and rivers and palmetto trees. The exhibit is a call to action, yes, to sign up to volunteer with Charleston Waterkeeper, to take the recycling bin out every Tuesday, to join the #strawlessummer campaign. But it’s more than that, too. It’s a plea for reflection.
“I’m really attracted to ambivalence, an ambivalent aesthetic,” says Falkehag. Her artistic intuition is practiced by now, of course, so the ambivalence is purposeful, selective. “I like organic patterns, and geometry. What I’m going to try to do here is to create areas that hopefully are experienced as man-made, like the manner in which I’m going to hang the bottles. It’s part of our system, of mass production.” When I visit the studio a few days before the opening, Falkehag has assistants quietly balancing on ladders, painting walls, sitting in the corner of the studio that will resemble an island, arranging bags of soil.
“Context is very important to me,” says Falkehag, “on an emotional level, when I first came to Charleston in 1965 I lived on the Ashley River. And the salt marsh … I think the salt marsh is the heart of Charleston. I feel really strong about it. It’s an important element to bring into the show.”
Falkehag has used most of the inorganic materials in Changing Index as part of other art projects. After the show, she will either save the materials, or properly recycle them, or maybe lend them to other artists to use. There are some items — old bricks, railroad spikes, a rusty metal handbell — that Falkehag may auction off, with money going to a local charity. But she’s pretty sure no one will want the broken Bud Light or half-full Gatorade bottles.
“We’re at a point where nature, even though it has ways to recycle, can’t cope anymore,” says Falkehag. She’s found her own way to cope, though, with the changing scenery and littered marshes and errant, abandoned toilets. Every bottle, every board, every rusted nail, a reminder. We are what we leave behind. In Changing Index, Falkehag asks, when all is said and done, and the coming soon signs are replaced by cranes replaced by hotels and the marshes are filled and the pavement is poured: what will you leave?